Big Cypress National Preserve | PADDLING

Big Cypress National Preserve Water Trail map (click to enlarge)

Big Cypress National Preserve Water Trail map (click to enlarge)

Download a copy of the Gulf Coast Paddling Guide: Gulf Coast Paddling Guide (PDF)


There are five paddling options for kayakers and canoeists at Big Cypress National Preserve on either Halfway Creek or the Turner River. All trips start on Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail) on the west side of the park at either the Seagrape Drive Boat Launch or the Turner River Canoe Launch. A map of the trails and other information can be found in the Gulf Coast Paddling Guide, a free publication that you can pick up at either the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center or the Oasis Visitor Center. A detailed listing of the paddling trips is located at the bottom of this web page.

The paddling season at Big Cypress runs from November through March, though the Turner River typically closes by mid-February due to low water levels. Starting in May, the mosquitoes, gnats, and biting flies are so bad that only a fool would attempt paddling at this time. Also, the water levels may get so high that the area south of Highway 41 becomes one, big lake, and the levels must actually recede before distinguishable waterways emerge. Enjoyable paddling begins again in November.

TURNER RIVER VS. HALFWAY CREEK

If you like kayaking and canoeing, hopefully you have time for a trip on both the Turner River and Halfway Creek. If not, here are some comparisons between the two that may help you to decide which trip to take. Keep in mind that I only paddled 3 miles on Halfway Creek. I cannot say what lies farther south, but after examining satellite maps I suspect the terrain is much of the same.

WATER LEVELS AND SEASONS

Halfway Creek has enough water to be navigable year round, while the water levels on the Turner River fluctuate drastically. Starting around mid-February, the water levels usually get too low for paddling, and the National Park Service closes the river until summer. Thus, at some point your only choice will be Halfway Creek.

Regardless of which waterway you choose, the mosquitoes and gnats are always a big problem in the summer. The best time for a paddling trip is from November through April; a Ranger told me the very best months are January and February. My trips were done during these months, and mosquitos and other annoying insects were never a problem.

WILDLIFE

While you will see plenty of birds on either waterway, I found that you have a much better chance of spotting alligators on the Turner River. Alligators like to sun themselves on the riverbank, and to do so there must be a place for them to lie. The banks of Halfway Creek are so consumed with mangroves that it’s hard for anything to penetrate into the interior. I don’t recall seeing any open areas along the three miles that I paddled, and I never saw an alligator. Turner River has more open banks, especially along the ponds that the route passes through, making it much more alligator-friendly. You can see wild alligators from the boardwalks and other viewing areas in the park, but you really haven’t seen a wild alligator until you have been in the water with one.

Alligator and egret share the same riverbank on the Turner River

Alligator and egret share the same riverbank on the Turner River

TERRAIN

While both waterways often enter and exit ponds and small lakes, for the most part they are narrow, usually less than the width of a two lane road. The widest sections of Halfway Creek come at the start of the trip, whereas you don’t hit the wider sections of Turner River until halfway to Chokoloskee Bay. On either, there are plenty of opportunities to pass through the very narrow mangrove tunnels, which are the highlight of any paddling trip at Big Cypress National Preserve.

I paddled the Halfway Creek Loop Trail, and half of that trip is on other waterways in the area. The three miles that I paddled on the actual Halfway Creek were not that interesting, for as mentioned, the creek starts off being fairly wide. It did, however, narrow considerably just as it was time to turn off onto the other waterways of the Loop Trail, and I believe it gets even narrower and possibly full of mangrove tunnels as you proceed south towards Chokoloskee Bay. I can report that there are plenty of mangrove tunnels on the loop portion of the water trail.

There are about 1.5 miles of mangrove tunnels on the Turner River, much more than on the Halfway Creek Loop Trail.

Despite being in jungle-like conditions, you are often out in the open and exposed to the sun. Be sure to wear a hat and apply sunscreen if avoiding the sun is a concern to you. Temperatures in the winter are perfect, so you could even wear long pants without getting too hot.

SOLITUDE

The Turner River is the more popular river when it is open, particularly the first mile. At some of the narrower spots I had to wait in line for people to clear the passageway before proceeding, whereas I don’t recall seeing but a few people on Halfway Creek. However, most people only paddle through the first mangrove tunnel before turning around, so if you go farther, you are likely to be on your own. On a recent trip nearly all the way down the Turner River, there were only three other kayakers (not including myself) who went beyond the first tunnel.

GENERAL PADDLING INFORMATION

Canoeing on the Turner River

Canoeing on the Turner River

EXPERIENCE

You don’t need much experience to paddle either Halfway Creek or the Turner River as long as you don’t venture all the way down to the open waters of Chokoloskee Bay. The water barely moves, so there’s not much chance of tipping over, and even if you did, in most spots the water is shallow enough that you can stand up (expect a mucky bottom). However, on the bay the wind can kick up, and it can get quite dangerous even for experienced paddlers. Even when the bay waters are calm, you may be paddling against the current, so you at least need some athletic ability.

Both waterways pass through small ponds and lakes as they make their way south. There might not be a breeze on the narrow sections, but these larger bodies of water are subject to wind, and they can get pretty rough. In most cases, crossing simply means extra hard paddling. Stick to the shoreline to avoid the brunt of the wind. If you have any doubts about your ability, ask a park Ranger what the expected weather conditions are on the water.

The only other concern is navigating. Prior to paddling in south Florida, my experience equaled about one hundred miles on “beer drinking” rivers as wide as an interstate and with no possible way to make a wrong turn. I certainly was apprehensive about venturing into terrain that appears the same no matter which way you look, but I found that getting lost is pretty hard to do. The first three miles of Halfway Creek have navigation markers. After that, it narrows and there is pretty much only one way to go. There are a few tricky intersections on the Turner River, but a park Ranger told me that she never heard of anyone getting lost and never making it back.

In truth, the only real skill you need when paddling Halfway Creek or Turner River is a sense of direction … or at least the printed map from the Gulf Coast Paddling Guide. Or better yet, a GPS device. Your cell phone GPS should work fine as long as you can get a cell signal. A phone’s GPS does not use a cell signal per se, but you need a signal to get the maps from a source such as Google, otherwise your GPS just shows your position on a blank screen. If you use your phone, just be sure that you have battery power to last the entire trip. Consider purchasing an external battery pack if you frequently make long hiking or paddling trips. I have one that can keep my cell phone going all day long.

Paddling on either waterway is certainly doable without a GPS, but do bring the map. On the Halfway Creek Loop Trail I made a few wrong turns, but these always ended up dead-ending into a small pond. Getting lost is temporary and only results in a waste of time.

TOURS OR SELF-GUIDED PADDLES

Plenty of approved concessionaires run paddling trips out of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. Even the National Park Service offers trips through the Big Cypress Institute. I paddled Halfway Creek on my own and Turner River both on my own and on a National Park Service tour. While organized excursions are undoubtedly more convenient, especially if you don’t own a canoe or kayak, going on your own or with friends is the better choice. You can rent canoes and kayaks and have them delivered to the boat ramp if you can’t transport them yourself. On your own you can cover much more ground, travel at your own pace, and take photos without being rushed to keep up with a group.

Tours are good for people who want to get out on the water, but who don’t have any get desire to become a frequent paddler. You don’t have to worry about anything, plus the guides are knowledgeable about the plants and animals, and they usually stop to point things out along the way, thus you have a chance to learn something. In addition, some people just enjoy traveling in a group, and if you are on a solo vacation, an organized paddling trip may be just the thing.

INFLATABLES

I used an inflatable kayak on all my trips in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park and had no problems. At first I was concerned about an alligator attacking and biting a hole in the boat and then slowly sinking while being feasted upon. I even found a story online about a lady whose inflatable was attacked and sunk, though she got to the shore and escaped injury. I asked a park Ranger if she recommended an inflatable, and I expected a lecture on the dangers of alligators, but all she told me was that since inflatables are a little lighter than regular canoes and kayaks that they may be harder to paddle if the wind kicks up. When I asked her about alligators she looked at me as if I were crazy. So, the story of the lady getting sunk may just be an urban legend, and even if it is true, chances of this happening are probably less than being struck by lightning. In my experience on the rivers, alligators tend to take off as soon as humans approach. They are not going to eat your inflatable kayak.

The only other concern with an inflatable is getting a puncture when knocking up against the mangrove roots and branches. Again, I did a lot of paddling at Big Cypress, and even more in the Everglades, and I had no problem. I tried paddling up a river against the tide in the Everglades, found that it was useless, and drifted over to the mangrove shoreline so that I could tie up the boat and wait until the current slowed. I hit the mangroves going around 5 MPH and suffered no punctures—you aren’t going to hit mangroves any faster than that. If you are in a swimming pool raft, punctures might be a problem, but if you have a quality inflatable, I wouldn’t worry about it, though anything can happen. And holes can always be repaired.

TRAVEL TIMES

A reasonable estimation of distance that can be covered while paddling at Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park is 2 miles per hour. Even if you paddle much faster on a “normal” river, here you have to pass through narrow waterways and mangrove tunnels where you must pull yourself through by the tree branches, and if kayaking, take your paddles apart and paddle like in a canoe. On top of that, there isn’t much current to help you, so unless you paddle you don’t go anywhere. I made a little over 2 MPH on the Halfway Creek Loop Trail, and a little under 2 MPH on Turner River. If I can do that, anyone can.

While tides affect the rivers, you won’t notice a thing until you get closer to Chokoloskee Bay. I paddled three miles down Halfway Creek before turning off onto the Loop Trail, and there were no tidal effects—I didn’t even know the tide schedule for that day. I also didn’t notice any accelerated current flow on Turner River until three miles down, and even then it was negligible. However, if you plan to travel to the bay, speak with a park Ranger about tidal effects. See the How Tides Affect Your Paddling article here on National Park Planner for general information.

OTHER CONCERNS

The riverbanks on the Turner River and Halfway Creek are pretty much covered in mangroves, so you won’t be getting out to sunbathe on the beach, or even to eat. I saw only one resting spot on the Turner River and none on the portion of Halfway Creek that I traveled. If you have a bad back and cannot sit in your watercraft for the required hours of the trip, reconsider going. If you must get out of the boat to take a break or to use the restroom, first stick your paddle into the ground to see what the bottom is like. The bottom can get pretty mucky, and you may sink a foot or more into the mud.

Knee-deep mud on the banks of the Turner River

Knee-deep mud on the banks of the Turner River


PADDLING TRIPS

The following is a list of paddling options and links to detailed information on the trips that I did. Technically, the majority of the Turner River is in Everglades National Park. This makes no difference as far as logistics are concerned, but if you drive into the Everglades to park your return ride at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you must pay a user fee. If you paddle out-and-back, there is no fee when entering the Everglades.

The majority of Halfway Creek lies within Big Cypress National Preserve.

Halfway Creek Loop Trail

This trip leaves from the Seagrape Drive Boat Launch and travels down Halfway Creek for about three miles before turning off onto other waterways. Along the way you will pass through mangrove tunnels, small ponds, and even a few lakes. Total distances is 9 miles, and it takes about 5 hours.


Halfway Creek to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center (Everglades)

Halfway Creek runs 7.3 miles between the Seagrape Drive Boat Launch and Chokoloskee Bay in Everglades National Park. It comes out pretty close to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, so if you have a ride waiting, figure around 8 miles for the trip. Using 2 MPH as a guide, a one-way trip down the creek shouldn’t take more than four to five hours. There are no tidal effects in the Big Cypress section, but there will be when you get closer to the bay.

Without a ride at one end you are looking at a 15-mile round-trip paddle. Even so, you should be able to make the journey in as little as eight to nine hours. Be sure to account for the tidal effects that you will encounter when you get nearer to the bay. The main concern is leaving early enough in the morning so that you have enough daylight to make the round trip.


Turner River to Chokoloskee Bay

The Turner River runs 8.5 miles, one-way to Chokoloskee Bay, plus another 3 miles to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the Everglades. Thus, you either have a 17-mile out-and-back trip or an 11.5 mile trip with a ride waiting at the Visitor Center. Both can be accomplished with a full day of paddling (10 hours or less).


Halfway Creek (Big Cypress) – Left Hand Turner River – Turner River (Big Cypress) Loop

A loop can be formed by paddling Halfway Creek, Left Hand Turner River, and Turner River. The starting and ending locations are different (Seagrape Drive and Turner River ramps), so you will need some way to get back and forth between these two locations. I could not find a distance reference anywhere on the Gulf Coast Paddling Guide, but I estimate the trip to be approximately 16 miles. If you have ten hours of daylight, you can do this trip.

The Gulf Coast Paddling Guide lists an 11-mile route using this same name, but it is referring to a loop that starts at and returns to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, looping back across the open waters of Chokoloskee Bay.

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Last updated on February 21, 2021
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